True to Life

Selections from London Labour and the London Poor

by Henry Mayhew, edited by John L. Bradley
Oxford (The World’s Classics), 288 pp., $2.75

Mayhew is the unique “short and simple” analyst of the lives of the London poor in the nineteenth century. The historians still consult him; the novelists and the journalists of his own time helped themselves to the strange material he collected from the mouths of dismal or cheerful wretches between 1849 and 1862. Interest in him was revived in the Thirties of this century when the documentary movement in journalism and cinema was tormented by the difficulty of being both earnest and true to life. How did this Victorian philanthropist escape sentimentality? How did the verbatim disentangle itself from the verbose? Why was Mayhew so alive and real, and documentary so worthy and yet so dead?

One answer is that the writers and camera men of the Thirties were overweighted with political faith. They were respectable men. The poor were not and are not respectable: They have to live. The best books about the lives of the poor in Great Britain—the account of builders’ laborers, for example, in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (circa 1906)—note the ambiguities, the silly delinquency, the halfcracked behavior, even the willingness of the victims to be victims. Mayhew’s success owes a lot to his lack of respectability, his Bohemianism, his instability as a person. He is a bit of a rogue; he has more than a touch of the unscrupulous hack. Englishmen of his type—and he was very English—are insubordinate, devious, plausible, and always fall on their feet. They can get on with anybody. Mr. Bradley, who introduces the present selection of Mayhew’s writings, says that Mayhew is in the tradition of Chaucer and Fielding; that is far too elegant. Mayhew belongs to the Grub Street that was founded by Defoe; he has something in common with Cobbett, or with the first, clumsy, vulgar minor Elizabethan playwrights. It is interesting to remember, here, that in his early years (he was born in 1812) he was one of the large number of crude hacks who turned out bad plays, by the ton and for very low pay, for the popular Victorian theater; like the stuff put on by television now, it had to appeal to the lowest taste. The curious thing is that Mayhew was a man of education. His father, an apoplectic solicitor, sent his son to Westminster, one of the great schools of England, and there the boy did brilliantly until he had a row with the headmaster about reading a Greek Grammar during a service in Westminster Abbey. He ran away to sea, went to India. Returning to his father’s office, he was still truculent. It seems that he got his father into trouble with the Courts by forgetting to submit vital documents and, instead of apologizing, took offense and marched out of his father’s office and would not see the old gentleman for years. Irresponsibility marked the rest of his career and indeed his private life. He reappeared as a writer of bombastic plays and …

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